Food Label Confusion

confused-personWe all know that a healthy diet in early childhood lays the solid foundation for lowered risk of adult disease, including diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke and some cancers. Your supermarket shelves are chock full of foods claiming to do just that. But are all those claims for real?

Just because a manufacturer uses the right buzz words on the packaging, does that mean the contents are actually good for you? Not on your life. To know for sure,  you have to look beyond the promises and check out the nutritional information on that cryptic label called Nutrition Facts.

Food makers often make claims on the front of a package — like “fat-free” or “no cholesterol.” The FDA  requires them to provide scientific evidence to make those claims, but loopholes are everywhere. It’s important to read the small print and understand what it means.

  • Reduced fat means that a product has 25% less fat than the same regular brand.
  • Light means that the product has 50% less fat than the same regular product.
  • Low-fat means a product has less than 3 grams of fat per serving.

To add to confusion, even if a food is low in fat, the food may not necessarily be low in calories or nutritious. A low-fat food can be high in sugar. “No cholesterol,” does not  mean the product is low in fat, it just means it doesn’t contain animal fat.

Here’s a sample Nutrition Facts label. Read on to learn how to interpret it. It’s not as hard as it looks:

400px-US_Nutritional_Fact_Label_2.svg

The number of calories listed on the food label indicates how many calories are in one serving.

Calories from fat tells the total calories in one serving that come from fat. Fats contain more than twice the number of calories per gram as carbs and protein (carbs and protein = 4 cal/g, fats = 9 cal/g). Dietitians generally recommend that adults consume no more than 30% of calories come from fat per day. Children may have slightly more.

Percent daily values are listed in the right-hand column in percentages, and they tell how much of a nutrient you will get from eating one serving of that food. If a food has 5% or less of a nutrient, it is considered to be low in that nutrient. A food is considered a good source of a nutrient if the percentage is between 10%-19%. If the food has 20% or more of the percent daily value, it is considered high in that nutrient.

Total fat indicates how much fat is in a single serving of food, measured in grams. Eating too much fat can lead to obesity and related health problems, but our bodies do need some fat every day.

Saturated fats and trans fats are often called “bad fats” because they raise cholesterol and increase the risk of developing heart disease. Saturated and trans fats are solid at room temperature. Picture them clogging up arteries!

Saturated fats should account for less than 10% of the calories that kids eat each day, and the amount of trans fat that they consume should be as low as possible (less than 1% of total calories).

Foods high in unsaturated fat are vegetable oils, nuts, and fish. Unsaturated fats are called “good fats” because they don’t raise cholesterol levels as saturated fats do. Most fats should come from sources of unsaturated fats.

Cholesterol is fat from animal sources (and produced in our own liver) and is important in producing vitamin D, some hormones, and  other important substances. It can become a problem if the amount in the blood is too high, which increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis, a blockage and hardening of arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Sodium, a component of salt, is listed on the Nutrition Facts label in milligrams. Small amounts of sodium are necessary for keeping proper fluid balance, but too much contributes to high blood pressure. Almost all foods naturally contain small amounts of sodium but many processed foods contain excessive amounts.

Total carbohydrates, listed in grams, combines several types: dietary fibers, sugars, and other carbohydrates. Carbs are the most abundant source of calories. Up to 60% of a child’s total calories should come from carbohydrates. The best sources are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Simple sugars are the least nutritious form of carbs.

Dietary fiber has no calories and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. High-fiber diets promote bowel regularity, may help reduce the risk of colon cancer, and can help reduce cholesterol levels.

Sugars are found in most foods. Fruits naturally contain simple sugars but also contain fiber, water, and vitamins, which make them a healthy choice. Snack foods, candy, and soda, on the other hand, often have large amounts of added sugars. Although carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram, the high sugar content in soft drinks and snack foods means the calories can add up quickly, and these empty calories contain few other nutrients. For a powerful visual on sugar, take a look at our recent post, HOW Much Sugar?

 

 

 

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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One response to “Food Label Confusion”

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